I have been addicted to writing since childhood. In the 4th grade, I actually wrote and illustrated my first book. My parents were so impressed, they sent it off to be bound, and today it sits on the shelf right above my desk to remind me of my career start.
As a communications major in college, I began to freelance from time to time – nothing huge, but enough to afford a few extra pizzas and some new shoes on occasion. It was work I loved, and it became my goal to “hang out my shingle” once I had the degree.
By the time graduation came along, I had amassed a decent stack of clients and had some regular gigs for copywriting – blog posts, website copy, forum articles, social media profiles, and such.
Mostly, new clients came by recommendation, but there was not enough work to earn enough a living wage. I needed to get in the startup game and get serious about being an entrepreneur.
Today, I have a small writing agency, with five writers on my staff. Getting to this point has been a bit of a roller coaster, with many lessons learned along the way. For anyone considering a writing startup, I share these lessons free of charge.
The early stages
The one really great thing about starting in this business is that, unlike so many startups, particularly in tech, product, and finance, investors are not needed. Big sigh of relief – no formal business plan to produce. A writing startup needs a writer, a computer, and high speed internet – pretty low overhead.
The first steps are obvious:
1. The website: I did use a professional designer for this because it was important to “look” professional. Now, with the new tools available, anyone can get a professional look.
2. A blog: In the beginning, I wasn’t sold on the value of a blog. After all, I didn’t want to write about writing and give great advice to writers who might become my competition. Ultimately, the value of a blog became quite clear – it is an essential marketing tool and has to be part of a larger marketing strategy.
3. A portfolio: Of course, I wanted to display some of my best writing, so I just gleefully uploaded several of the best samples of different varieties. My first mistake. If you have been paid by someone for a written piece, it belongs to them not you anymore. Getting written permission to display it is a legal “must.”
Fortunately, clients were understanding, but that was just luck. Nailing down the legal matters about who owns the copy and how it may be used is something that must be contractual. Get a bit of legal advice on the matter, and pay for contract templates – you won’t regret it.
4. Social Media: This is another “must” for marketing reasons. Fortunately, you are already a writer and your profiles should be easy to create. The big issue will be maintaining your presence with regular posts. More on that later.
This will be the biggest challenge. You are a writer not a marketer. On the other hand, a lot of what you write will be for marketing activities of other companies, so you will learn a bit along the way. In general, you are ready to market as soon as your Internet presence is established. Now, it’s a matter of spreading your brand.
1. Do the research: You have to find out where your typical customers are online. My customers were other small businesses but I did want business from larger companies because their budgets were bigger and they could afford to pay more. There are several methods for doing this but do it you must.
2. LinkedIn is a given: If you are targeting business customers, your LinkedIn profile must be exceptional. And your presence will require time, because you have to join groups and participate in discussions.
3. Facebook: yes, you will need a Facebook page, and you can get pretty creative with your posts. After all, you are a writer. Write sharable content and offer incentives to use your services. Use humor. And always link back to landing pages on your site. Drive people to your blog posts; make those posts easy for readers to share.
4. Twitter: An increasingly popular place for businesses. There is a learning curve, but there are lots of marketing strategies, both free and paid.
5. Offline marketing: The best thing I did was develop a creative and engaging elevator pitch to give right before I handed my card to anyone at a social event, a bar, a coffee shop, standing in a checkout line – anywhere. You need a 30-second response when someone asks you what you do – get a compelling one.
Marketing is on-going, always evolving, and forever a challenge. You will get better as you go along. When you begin, take some lessons from your competitors. If they are coming up on the first page of organic searches, you want to do what they do.
So, how do you know when you are ready to expand from solopreneur to entrepreneur with staff? It’s a huge decision. But the timing has to be right, and you personally have to be ready for the change in role. Here are some ways to know if you are ready:
- You are having trouble meeting deadlines and are turning down gigs due to time.
- You have a great network of clients who are willing to recommend you just for the asking.
- You know some great freelance writers who would love to work with you.
- You really want to manage and edit as much as you want to write.
Writing for a living is no longer a dream. Good writers are in high demand, and that demand is not going away. Success as an agency, as it is with any business, requires the right market, the right product and the right team.
Fortunately, the most important of these for you is the right market, and it is there. You already have the right product – your writing talent. And the right team? You’ll have some great and dependable staff, and you will occasionally hire the flake. The flake can be replaced.
This is hard work, at least in the beginning. Over time, though, it settles down, and that roller coaster becomes much more of a flat track.
Author: This post was written by John Unger, a writer and entrepreneur.